April 1, 2020

Beyond the Numbers Game

Statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Christian & Heidi Martin

Building up the nerve to jump, I [Christian] took one last breath and held it. Swinging my arms up in the air, I leaped off a 20-foot ledge into the strikingly blue, frigid cold waters of Crater Lake. That particular lake has the distinction of being the deepest and clearest lake in the United States, and the ninth deepest in the world, with a depth of 1,949 feet. It’s breathtaking in more ways than one, with water temperatures rarely rising above 55 degrees Fahrenheit!

This beauty of nature is actually a volcanic basin filled with 4.6 trillion gallons of water maintained only by rain and an average snowfall of 44 feet a year. One can walk around the rim of the crater for a spectacular sight, but our outlook changed the day Heidi and I strapped ourselves into the seats of a Bonanza V-35 single-engine aircraft (with its distinctive V-tail), and lifted off. Within minutes we were flying high above Crater Lake for an amazing bird’s-eye view. Our flight provided distinct features of both the lake and its volcanic surroundings from a whole new perspective.

Thinking About Mission

As a Bible-believing, church-attending follower of Jesus, what is my perspective on mission? When I look at a crowd, do I even notice actual people? Do I put value on massive crowds more than the troubled man or lonely woman in them? If I were to freeze the frame of a packed auditorium, would I still see only one large gathering, or would I be mindful of each person? In other words, what’s my outlook on mission?

Back to that freeze frame: what would Jesus see? In the midst of large multitudes found in every city, Jesus told His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). So who makes up this so-called harvest that Jesus identifies as being so “great”?

Reading Matthew’s parallel passage enhances our understanding of the immediate context of Luke’s words. When Jesus saw the massive crowd, “He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Other translations describe them as “distressed and dispirited” (NASB);1 or “fainted, and . . . scattered abroad” (KJV). I cannot think of a more accurate description of the “great multitudes” of the twenty-first century.

Perhaps because we tend so often to gawk in awe at the masses, we somehow miss seeing the shirtless young man with sleeve tattoos;  the anxious grandmother trying to keep up with her hyper grandson; giggly teenage girls craving attention; a boy completely oblivious to his surroundings as he scrolls through Instagram on his smartphone; the single mother holding her wailing toddler. They are like sheep, having no shepherd.

The heart of God aches for each life that is fearfully and wonderfully made in His image.

In every evangelistic event are attendees who are categorized as being the most promising interests, with the prominent criteria simply being high attendance, while those who appear to be uninterested or indifferent are in many cases the very ones longing to believe in something much greater than themselves. While professing to be “mission-minded,” do we find ourselves caught up with the numbers game? Mindful of everything and anything but the heart of mission.

Mission As Marketing Success

From a marketing and business perspective, anything short of the largest possible response or attendance is not considered most successful. So I wonder: Does my church judge evangelistic success by sheer numbers? We hear the exciting praise reports, “More than 100 baptisms!” “More than 1 million requested Bible studies!” “Thousands volunteered!” But what truly defines an accomplished mission? Must we expect to hear only evangelistically successful stories from developing countries, in which reports of mass baptisms are announced on a regular basis? Do we need a whole new point of view?

Wherever we are, this very day, all around us are men and women of all ages who need to know that there’s a God who loves them and whom they can love in return. Do we notice their tears, the longing in their eye, their nonverbal communication? Or are they lost in the masses? Ellen White wrote, “Prayers and tears and inquiries go up from souls longing for light, for grace, for the Holy Spirit. Many are on the verge of the kingdom, waiting only to be gathered in.”2

Do we believe that to be reality? Are we as ready to do and dare for souls as I did for fun in an Oregon lake years ago? Or do we fail to notice those persons in tears because they’re the only ones who showed up when thousands of invitations were sent out?

Am I driven and heartbroken over the condition of broken people? Robert Pierce, founder of the international charity organization World Vision International in the 1950s, wrote on the flyleaf of his Bible: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Dwight Nelson quoted these words years later from the pulpit in Pioneer Memorial church, and brought conviction to the heart of Heidi Towar and other students at Andrews University one Sabbath in September 1996.

Inspired with a mission to reach Benton Harbor, Michigan, a city about 30 minutes from Andrews University, Heidi and friends prayerfully drove to the heart of that city and started knocking on doors, asking to pray with each resident who opened their door. For some it was more challenging than my leap into the lake. At times student optimism was met with blank stares and closed doors. How many unopened doors and locked hearts does one count before deciding that it’s time to go back to campus? Ten? Twenty?

Charles Spurgeon once said, “If we had to preach to thousands year after year, and never rescued but one soul, that one soul would be a full reward for all our labor, for a soul is of countless price.” A mission-minded disciple keeps looking for one soul. As Paul encouraged the believers in Galatia: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). That hot Saturday afternoon in Benton Harbor, mission-minded students did not give up.

Benton Harbor Mission

Instead, in a relatively short time, the Spirit led us into a ministry to the community that involved hundreds of students. Each student was encouraged to adopt a home in the community, learn the residents’ names, spend time getting to know them and caring for their hearts. Sometimes that looked like raking leaves, shoveling snow, or picking up trash. Other times there were Bible studies, children’s programs, evangelistic meetings, health screenings, and choir concerts. We shared prayers and tears, and heard thanksgiving for our visits. Yet in all the flurry of our work, we sometimes wondered if we were making a difference.

Looking back over the years, this mission-minded zeal with fellow students was a huge piece of what made me (Heidi) who I am today. Nothing is more powerful than seeing God move in front of your very eyes on a weekly basis. Those were the experiences that we lived for—the joy that motivated each heart; the thrill of seeing others capture a vision of Jesus and His deep love for them. Mission is all around us. We just need to open our eyes and hearts to see where Jesus wants us to minister. Christian artist Brandon Heath sings, “Give me your eyes for just one second . . . , give your love for humanity.”

Over the years the Benton Harbor ministry has expanded to what is now the Harbor of Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church, still ministering in the heart of Benton Harbor, Michigan. The stories continue to this day, across the expanse of our amazing mission-minded church, all around the world.

God and Mission

The heart of God aches for each life that is fearfully and wonderfull
y made in His image. His mission is fueled by compassion for one. What helps us without fail to cultivate a love for one is spending time with Him. It is truly amazing what happens to our hearts when we do this. God fills us with His love so that we can love those around us—even those who are tough to love. He alone can change our unloving hearts into loving, mission-minded ones that care for others of His children. We truly long to be mission-minded Christians. For as Jesus makes that change in each one of us, our church becomes the mission-minded church we want and long to belong to.

  1. Texts credited to NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
  2. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 109.

Christian Martin enjoys the companionship and support of his wife, Heidi, in his work as pastor of the Living Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Haymarket, Virginia.